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  • Empowering the People of God: Catholic Action before and after Vatican II ed. by Jeremy Bonner, Christopher D. Denny, and Mary Beth Fraser Connolly
  • Thomas J. Shelley
Empowering the People of God: Catholic Action before and after Vatican II. Edited by Jeremy Bonner, Christopher D. Denny, and Mary Beth Fraser Connolly. [Catholic Practice in North America.] ( New York: Fordham University Press. 2014. $65.00. ISBN 978-0-8232-5400-2.

The name “Catholic Action” never became popular in the United States partly because it seemed too European for American Catholic tastes. However, the concept of “the participation and the collaboration of the laity with the Apostolic Hierarchy,” as Pope Pius XI defined Catholic Action in the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno (1931), gained widespread appeal under many different names. This volume offers a sample of eleven of them.

Patrick J. Hayes resurrects from the grave through extensive archival research the forgotten story of the Catholic Club of the City of New York, which for more than a half-century was the most prestigious and influential lay Catholic organization in the nation’s largest city. Katharine E. Harmon calls attention to the role of American Catholic laywomen not only in fostering the liturgical revival but also in keeping it faithful to its original close connection with social reform (aka Catholic Action). William Issel demonstrates that in San Francisco for several decades in the early-twentieth century, the combination of progressive bishops, priests, and lay leaders (both men and women) imbued local politics and also organized labor in California with the principles of Catholic social teaching.

The Jesuit John Courtney Murray was an ardent advocate of Catholic Action, but he doubted that the neo-Scholasticism of his seminary education was capable of providing the theological justification for laypeople to assume leadership roles in Catholic social activism. Christopher D. Denny describes Murray’s efforts to establish a suitable theological grounding for Catholic Action. Mary Elizabeth Brown, the leading expert on Italian American Catholicism in New York City, ventures into new territory in her fascinating study of post–World War II Italian-American Catholicism in Boston and Washington, DC. The evangelization efforts of the Catholic Extension Society, which date from 1905, are well known, but Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello focuses on an all-but-forgotten subgroup: the Extension Lay Volunteers, [End Page 686] which was composed of some 2000 young Catholics (80 percent of them women) who between 1961 and 1971 attempted to promote the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council among some of the most disadvantaged American Catholics on the parish level across the United States.

At the time of the Council, in the words of Sister Patricia Byrne, C.S.J., “Catholic education in the United States [was] the largest private educational enterprise known to history.”1 However, within a decade of the Council, says Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, “this dynamic would be in tatters” (p. 172). She offers a revealing insight into this puzzling development by tracing the heroic struggle of the Chicago Province of the Sisters of Mercy to explore new forms of ministry while maintaining their educational apostolate, especially in inner-city neighborhoods. In an admirably balanced revisionist study of the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW), Mary J. Henold describes how her research into the history of the NCCW led her to discover the unexpected evolution of this traditionally conservative organization into a source of support for a moderate form of Christian feminism.

The most dangerous time for a bad government, Alexis De Tocqueville claimed, is when it begins to reform. The last three chapters illustrate the wisdom of that remark by describing the difficulties encountered by some of the most progressive U.S. bishops as they attempted to provide a role for the laity in the governance of a hierarchical Church. Jeremy Bonner concentrates on the efforts of Bishop Victor Reed in the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa; Samuel J. Thomas traces the leadership role of Cardinal John Dearden both in Detroit and nationally as the chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Andrew S. Moore explores the limits of consensus-building in Atlanta where even Archbishop Paul Hallinan and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph...


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